An increase in family violence and partners separating during the pandemic has been placing high demand on an already overstretched family law system. On 1 September the new Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia opened, the latest in a long line of initiatives to reform a system which has been plagued for decades by lengthy delays and exorbitant legal costs.
“The new court is a merger of two previously separate courts, the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court of Australia” said Brendan Stackpole, manager of Peninsula Community Legal Centre’s Family Law Program. “What the new Court and its rules hope to achieve is the implementation of a completely new family law system.”
The establishment of the new court has been criticized by some legal advocates as an inadequate reform that will have little impact in addressing the existing flaws in the system.
“It is too early to say what the new court will really mean for separating parents,” said Mr. Stackpole. “The reforms do target some of the key concerns with the system so hopefully it will result in some improvement. For example, where dispute resolution fails and court proceedings cannot be avoided, the new court will attempt to resolve up to 90% of cases within 12 months where possible.”
The previous system came under fire for repeated failures to protect women and children from family violence and to safeguard the best interests of the children it was set up to protect. The new system aims to improve early risk identification and the safety of children and vulnerable women. Where safe, parents will be encouraged to resolve issues with dispute resolution and less cost – although this is not a new thing. Importantly, there will also be a greater expectation that the court’s orders will be complied with. And significant resources have been directed to improving access to the court, especially for vulnerable parties and those in remote and regional areas.
Legal advocates are calling on the federal government to seize the opportunity that the opening of the new court and the National Women’s Safety summit earlier this month present to show its commitment to achieving a safe, accessible family law system.
Mr Stackpole believes that meaningful change may be difficult to achieve unless parents are better supported through dispute resolution and the court process.
“Accessible legal services are desperately needed in family law where many people can’t afford to pay for ongoing family law advice and representation themselves, “ said Mr Stackpole. “What is needed is increased funding to legal aid and the community legal sector to ensure that vulnerable and disadvantaged people can receive ongoing representation”.
While the Australian Government injected $100 million into the Family Law Courts in its May 2021 budget, there was no matched funding for already-stretched free legal services.
“Without legal support, many vulnerable people will continue to experience difficulty accessing justice and the protection of the court”, said Mr Stackpole. “The system is just too complex and overwhelming. Approximately 50% of our family law clients have experienced family violence and a majority face serious financial hardship resulting from the breakdown of the relationship. Many are unable to obtain property settlements because they cannot afford lawyers, and because legal aid is mostly unavailable for those matters their poverty is made worse. In fact, it’s almost impossible for most people to effectively represent themselves in the family law system, and that is unlikely to change, even with these new reforms.”
If you require free family violence or family law advice, contact Peninsula Community Legal Centre on 9783 3600.
DATE: 16 September 2021
CONTACT: Kirsten Young, Community Engagement Officer
PENINSULA COMMUNITY LEGAL CENTRE INC.